WASHINGTON – For the moment, the Iranian scientist who returned to his homeland claiming he was abducted by the CIA is a national hero and a prime player in Tehran's propaganda war with the U.S.
But after Shahram Amiri's public role is done, former CIA officials say, he will likely face intense questioning about his defection from Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security and a future etched in fear.
Amiri is at the center of a volatile war of words between Iran and the U.S., with each country trading public salvos designed to discredit the other. But his short career as a defector and informant for the U.S. also will expose him to pressure from Iranian officials for information about his American handlers — and to even more perilous questions about his loyalty.
"They will keep him in fear and in doubt as to what his eventual fate will be," said Paul Pillar, a former CIA analyst with extensive knowledge of Iran. "From the private, official Iranian point of view, this guy is an awful traitor. If it weren't for the public relations aspect, he might have been strung up yesterday already or shot."
The Washington Post reported on its website late Friday that Amiri for some time had been providing the CIA with information about Iran's nuclear program while he was still in Iran. The report said he was one of two informants the agency whisked out of the country last year because of concerns that the Tehran government had discovered they were providing secrets.
Amiri was among a half dozen people working inside the Iranian nuclear program that subsequently were settled in the United States and given "reward packages" of money, the newspaper said, quoting anonymous U.S. officials.
On Thursday, Amiri took part in a high-profile news conference in Tehran and stuck to his tale that he was kidnapped by the CIA in Saudi Arabia and whisked to Arizona and held against his will.
U.S. officials countered aggressively, releasing glints of revealing information intended to chip away at Amiri's credibility.
They have called Amiri's story a "fairy tale" and said the scientist was paid $5 million to provide the CIA with information about its suspected nuclear weapons program. They have said Amiri, who ran a radiation detection program in Iran, provided the CIA with significant information and had stayed here for months of his own free will.
All of this will make it harder for Amiri to convince Iranian intelligence officials of his claims that he was the victim of a forced rendition — the intelligence phrasing for a stealthy abduction.
How did he manage to escape from the CIA and make a series of videos questioning his treatment, and then make his way to the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, former U.S. officials said, if he was being held captive? Why would the U.S. allow him to get on a commercial flight back to Iran if the CIA didn't want him to leave?
"It's unlikely that the Iranians believe his current cover story about being kidnapped," Pillar said. "There are numerous holes in it. The people in Tehran are not dumb, and they can see through that just as you and I can."
Even Iran's foreign minister reportedly told the BBC somewhat skeptically that "we first have to see what has happened in these two years and then we will determine if he's a hero or not."
Eventually, former CIA officials said, Amiri's value in the propaganda war will wane and he will then face hard questions while under some form of house arrest. Amiri won't have a lot of room to maneuver because his wife and young son are in Iran, a leverage point U.S. officials say that the Iranians used to lure him back home.
"He will be in huge trouble, and he will be in confinement, of some form, for a very long time," said Charles S. Faddis, who headed the weapons of mass destruction unit at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center until he retired in May 2008. "I assume they are going to be a little restrained for public relation reasons because this thing has become such a high-profile incident."
If the Iranians do show any restraint, former CIA officials say, it would result from their need to squeeze every last detail out of him. Iranian intelligence officers will be probing for information about what the CIA already knew about their nuclear program and what they wanted from him, who his contacts were and how they dealt with him.
There is the ever-present danger that Amiri could — knowingly or not — help the Iranians learn about CIA spying efforts and perhaps put lives in jeopardy. Amiri had been an informant inside Iran for several years before he turned up in the U.S. And The New York Times reported Friday that Amiri was one of the sources who contributed to a controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that concluded Iran had stopped work on its nuclear program.
"Could they walk back activities and learn about our activities inside?" Faddis asked? "Yes, if we were not careful about what we said, what questions we asked, how we asked them, etc. Every time you ask a question it says something about what you already know, what you do not know, what access you have, what access you do not have, what you consider important, what you consider unimportant. We will hope that the debriefing was conducted with all this in mind and an understanding that he might start talking one day."
Former CIA officials pointed to the case of Vitaly Yurchenko, a Soviet KGB agent who defected to the U.S. in 1985 only to re-defect back to the Soviet Union three months later.
Like Amiri, Yurchenko also claimed he had been drugged by his CIA "torturers." Yurchenko managed to escape to the Soviet Embassy in Washington. He, too, held a crowded news conference, and, again like Amiri, claimed the CIA tried to pay him to stay — in his cases, $1 million.
Yurchenko soon became yesterday's news.
"He'll fade away like Yurchenko," said Joseph Wippl, a former senior CIA officer. "He'll be alive but there will be times where he won't be sure it was such a good idea."